Mona Chollet, Witches the Undefeated Power of Women.“If you are a woman and you dare to look inside yourself, then you are a witch.”
The hooked nose, warts, incantations and potions… the witch has always fascinated and the cinema has portrayed her many times. From the cantankerous old queen of Snow White to the brave and valiant Hermione, her representation has evolved a lot in cinema as in history. She has long made children cry and unleashed the fury of men. Put aside, denigrated, burned, feared, it is the object of all fears but also the source of many fantasies.
But doesn’t the fear of the witch come simply from the fear of the feminine, in its power and its marginality?
Because indeed she appears to be strong, independent, single, sometimes old and childless, coming out of traditional beauty and the dictates imposed by patriarchal societies.
In its early days, cinema mainly filmed the witch as the main figure of fear and anguish. A true cliché of a storybook witch, she is then ugly and shown as monstrous: aged, wrinkled, crooked nose, malevolent and above all shown in opposition to the young, pretty and naive first. The classic The Wizard of Oz is the prime example, but Disney’s version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Sleeping Beauty really didn’t help boost its image.
In the 1960s, the witch was domesticated. She has a husband, a family, is a housewife, seeks love and validation. Her physique changes completely, she becomes cute, well-groomed and dressed, always at the forefront of fashion. Her happiness can only be linked to the well-being of her family and her husband. In short, the patriarchy has done its work! To give examples, Sam in the Bewitched series, Gil in Bell, Book and Candle or Morticia from The Adams Family come to mind.
Today the cinema appears very rich in terms of representations and has ceased to convey a single image. Gone are the old black hats and the broom, today they are sexy, go to school and fight with wizards, are scary, make people laugh, are sometimes evil. They are the fantasy of a whole generation, some dreaming of marrying Emma Watson or better of becoming Emma Watson.
For this article on this blog, I wanted to recommend two films that deal with the figure of the witch. Two styles, two directors and two different visions complementing each other rather well.
Suspiria – Dario Argento (1977)
I won’t go into the questionable and recent version of Luca Guadagnino here, simply because I have a lot of grievances about him despite an interesting treatment of the occult. Indeed he develops an approach centered on the power of magic and women, which differs from the version of Argento rather centered on the monstrous.
The Suspiria of 77 tends towards the fantastic and the giallo, a genre which appeared in Italy between the 60s and 70s and which mixes murder, sexuality, fantasy, thriller, detective film and fantasy. It is mainly recognized for its particular colors, with a strong use of red, blue and yellow. The scenes are often outrageous and baroque, even extremely kitsch. If you want to know more, I refer you to the filmography of Dario Argento but also of Fulci and Mario Bava.
Suspiria is therefore an extremely cult film that any cinephile fan of the genre must have seen. It is the first part of the Three Mothers Trilogy, preceding Inferno and The Third Mother. This trilogy is entirely devoted to the myth of the witch.
Suspiria tells the story of a young dancer making her debut in a German ballet school full of secrets. Given the theme of the chronicle it is not a spoiler to reveal that the founders and teachers engage in black magic. The witch is approached here from the angle of the macabre and the monstrous. They are real fairy tale villains, powerful but diabolical. The young dancers are filmed like children wanting to unravel the mysteries of this school and understand the issues. The school building, with its astonishing architecture reminiscent of art nouveau, is in itself a character in its own right. A veritable castle of stories from our childhood, it is a source of terror but above all of wonder, for the spectator as well as for the young dancers.
Dario Argento uses the baroque and the fantastic to underline the strangeness of the place and the events. He is helped by Goblin and his music which is certainly magnificent but very disturbing. Argento also declares “having tried with Suspiria to mix the world of the tales of Walt Disney and Grimm with the violence of The Exorcist”. For the photography, Luciano Tovoli accentuates the recognizable primary colors of the Giallo and delivers a work worthy of paintings, which accentuates the fantastic and hypnotic aspect of the film. He also draws inspiration from German Expressionist cinema in his use of symbolism.
The Witch – Robert Eggers (2015)
The Witch differs radically from the previous one in its approach as well as in its aesthetics. It comes across as more grounded in reality, colder, and really dwells on the folkloric portrayal of the witch.
The Witch is the directorial debut of horror film prodigy Robert Eggers (The Northman, The Lighthouse) who has been proving his talent ever since. It shows us a Puritan family of the 15th century (and still the word is weak, next to the Le Quesnois family are atheists) driven out of their community and having no other choice but to isolate themselves at the edge of a forest. They will gradually find themselves confronted with strange phenomena and lose their footing.
The strength of The Witch is that it is not a work that is necessarily scary, but a work about fear itself. The fear that will plague an entire family and push them to destroy each other. The real threat is not the prowling witch but the fanaticism of the characters. Fanaticism that will push the characters to return the violence towards the eldest personified by Anya Taylor Joy, a young girl with a strong character, and accuse her of all the evils. Since she is beautiful and desirable, she can only mate with the devil. It is not innocent that The Witch is carried by a strong female character and at the dawn of her entry into adolescence, a pivotal period where the body changes and can appear as monstrous or sexualized. The monstrous feminine is also an important theme in horror cinema, highlighted by what is called the “Coming Of Age”, a subgenre that deals with the passage from childhood to adulthood and the loss of a certain innocence as well as the enhancement of one’s own personality. Like Carrie, Thomasin questions imposed dictates, sees herself sexualized by the appearance of her period and must face the gaze of her bigoted entourage.
The film therefore highlights the witch “marginal woman” wishing to emancipate herself from religion and patriarchy, here very well represented by the character of the father. Rather than strictly condemning acts of witchcraft, Eggers first exposes the disturbing aspects before rejoicing and exalting its power in the conclusion. Black magic appears as the creation of oppression, whether through folklore or extreme religious depictions of family. In order to document himself and provide a faithful historical representation, Robert Eggers has carried out meticulous research using period texts such as Malleus Maleficarum, a reference in the fight against witchcraft.
Image the witch
Mona Chollet.“The witch embodies the woman freed from all domination, from all limitations, she is an ideal towards which to strive, she shows the way”